by Rebecca Monroe
Dar and Christine filed into the room with the rest of their third period junior high school class. They were nicknamed the Russian and the Swede. Dar, the Russian, because of her blocky build and dark looks. Christine, the opposite, was the Swede; blonde, slim to the point of thin.
Tables were set up along three walls with figurines on them. An old man stood in the far corner; his shirt too tight, wrinkled hands clasping each other, gray hair pretending to cover his forehead. The noise was a dull roar as students from other classes milled about, the air hot from too many bodies.
* * *
Richard settled back from his workbench, rotating his head slowly to take the kinks out of his neck. The top of the jewelry box was coming together nicely; different types of wood inlaid to form a forest and mountain. He still needed to build the rest and hadn’t yet decided if the box portion would be simple, or if he would attempt to carry the wood tones through the rest of it. He smirked. What he would do with it once it was finished, he didn’t know. He’d had the idea yesterday and it had excited him so much he hadn’t bothered to consider the rest.
He picked up his coffee cup, knuckles brushing the orange tabby fur of Bowser, his old cat. Bowser gave a soft ‘blurp’, in acknowledgment, but didn’t bother opening his eyes. Richard sipped his coffee, considering the project before him, resisting the urge to stroke Bowser. He had enough cat hair in everything without stirring up more. If he worked hard, he could finish the left portion of the box before dinner. After dinner, he would cut the pieces for the right. Maybe he could have most of it done by tomorrow.
* * *
Christine slammed the door to her bedroom and threw herself on the bed. Grounded. She stared up at the ceiling, thinking of all the things she and Dar had planned. Rolling over, she reached for the phone by her bed and dialed Dar’s number. It was picked up immediately.
“Grounded. Can you believe it? I’m fourteen and they ground me like I’m a child! What about you?”
“Nobody’s home yet.” Dar looked about her room. The door was shut so she couldn’t see the mess beyond. She was supposed to clean the house. Why? It never stayed clean. As soon as one of her brothers or her Dad came home, they trashed it.
“You’re lucky. My Mom pounced on me as soon as I walked in the door.”
“Tell me about it!” Dar swung her feet over the edge of her bed. “I’m everyone’s slave, remember? How long are you grounded for?”
“A month. There goes the dance, the picnic we’d planned next weekend. Mom acted like a ‘D’ was the end of the world! I thought she was going to have a heart attack.”
“Four more years,” Dar muttered.
To Christine it sounded like forever. “I don’t think I can take four more years of this.”
Dar thought. What were their choices? “You want to run away?”
“I don’t know,” Christine replied slowly. In a way she did, yes. Run and start life, be free, be able to do what she wanted instead of what someone told her to. It sounded great. Unfortunately, her older brother, Kevin, had explained the reality of being on ones own. She’d seen his apartment, his empty cupboards. She and Dar needed jobs. She said the last aloud.
“We can’t get a work permit for another year.” Dar thought of going to school, doing the housework, and trying to work. It made her feel heavy and old.
* * *
He set the box aside. “Come on, Bowser. Time for dinner.” Richard rose, stretching out his stiffness. Bowser appeared oblivious but an ear had twitched at the word ‘dinner’. He studied the cat for a moment, trying to decide just how he knew Bowser was no longer sleeping. The ear, of course, but something else had changed. The cat no longer looked asleep.
Picking up his coffee cup, he slowly made his way up the narrow stairs to the kitchen. Once he got started on a project he always forgot to change his position, loosen his muscles. He was getting too old to sit in one place for so long. What sounded good for dinner? It’d been a question he’d wrestled with every night for four years. Until Edith has passed away, he’d never realized how hard it was to plan meals.
By the time he got his coffee cup rinsed out, Bowser was at his feet, meowing for food. That part was easy. He took the can of cat food from the refrigerator and scooped a dollop into Bowser’s bowl. The old cat sniffed the wet, tan mess and then shifted to munch on the dry food that had been there all day. Personally, Richard wouldn’t eat the junk either. Once, after reading an article on how cats liked warm food, he tried to heat some up in the microwave. Never, ever, would he do THAT again. He’d had to open all the windows to get the stench out. Bowser usually took care of that problem himself anyway. It would sit until it was room temperature and then he would eat it.
For a while, after Edith had died, Richard hadn’t bothered with meals. Popcorn, chips, sometimes nothing. A friend, a schoolteacher, had asked him what was going to happen to Bowser when ill health killed his owner. Bowser, alone in the world, was unthinkable. Richard had started taking care of himself.
* * *
Christine turned her headphones up until she couldn’t hear her mother calling her for dinner. There was no way she was going to go sit at the table like nothing was wrong. Why couldn’t they leave her alone? She wanted . . . freedom. She wanted to be able to grab hold of life, make it into something besides schoolwork and the clatter of dinner dishes. She let the music pound into her bones, echoing the restlessness inside. For a while, she dozed but when she woke, curiosity made her turn the headphones down. It took her hearing a moment to adjust, but finally the murmur of her parent’s voices drifted up. Talking about her, no doubt, wondering what on earth they were going to do with her. Kevin had been such a pushover and they expected the same from her. Well, she wasn’t Kevin! She could be, if she wanted to; she was smarter than Kevin had ever thought of being but it was what they expected.
She rolled over on her side. Lucky Dar. She was probably doing whatever she wanted to right now. Most of the time her dad didn’t even remember to ask about grades, much less punish her if they were bad.
A knock on her door made her tense.
“Christine, you need to come downstairs. Your father wants to talk to you.” The knob turned.
Christine closed her eyes, forcing herself to breathe regularly. If she had to listen to another one of her father’s lectures, she’d scream.
The door opened, a pause and then the light clicked off and the door shut again.
A month. There-was-no-way! She would never survive locked up in this house for a month. The only time she’d get to see Dar was at school.
* * *
He put a hamburger patty in a pan, a removed part of him looking at the knarls in his hands. It was a shame Edith would never know the person he’d become. He liked to think she’d have been pleased. Maybe he would take the jewelry box to the rest home, brighten someone’s day with it. Bowser yowled at him, smelling the hamburger. He nipped off a piece and dropped it on the floor – another evening tradition. One Edith most definitely would not have approved of.
* * *
Dar watched her brothers and father push back from the table. Her brothers rose to go to the living room to watch television. Her father paused in the doorway to ask, “Have you started the laundry yet, Dar?”
Dar shook her head, staring at the remains of the dinner just finished.
“I’ve got some shirts I need to throw in.” There was a pause. She wondered why he didn’t leave, go join the boys. “You all right, pumpkin?”
Dar felt her throat close, tears threatening. She wanted to tell him. Yell at him for letting her do all the work. She couldn’t though. She knew he was still hurting from Mom’s death. He had enough to put up with in Mark and Sam; he didn’t need problems from her too. She took a deep breath and let it out slowly. “I’m all right. Just a little tired.”
“Why don’t you leave the dishes until tomorrow?” Her father’s voice was kind. “And forget the shirts.”
Dar forced a smile and stood, moving toward the sink. He meant well. He didn’t understand that it would still be there tomorrow but there would be more of it. “Thanks, Dad. I’m all right. I’ll feel better if I could get your shirts done.” She met his gaze, seeing the extra glisten in his eyes. Then she got to work, trying to suppress a sigh as the volume of the television rose. It had to be loud to cover the arguing of her brothers. She jumped when a hand fell on her shoulder.
“I found your report card.”
Dar felt her heart begin to hammer. Three D’s and a C.
“It’s not good.”
She shook her head, wishing there he would be angry; anything but the disappointed sadness in his face.
“It’s so far below what you’re capable of. Why?”
“I don’t know. I’m sorry. I’ll do better the next nine weeks. I didn’t turn in some homework,” and was too tired to study for the tests but she couldn’t say that.
“Do you have homework now?”
She nodded. She’d planned on trying to get some done after the washer finished. Her eyes darted around the kitchen. The floor had mud on it from Sam’s boots.
Her father’s gaze followed her own. He lifted the dishcloth from her hands. “Forgive me, Dar. I’m a self-centered fool. Go do your homework.”
There was no use protesting; trying to explain that what she didn’t get done now would be twice as bad tomorrow.
“Sam! Mark! Shut off that TV and get your butts in here. Now!”
Dar turned in surprise. Her dad winked at her. “There will be a few changes,” he whispered. “Yours was the ‘good’ report card! Go.”
* * *
Richard finished his dishes, stacking them in the drainer to be put away before he went to bed. Another lesson he’d had to learn. Keep on top of it or live like a pig. He’d lived like a pig for quite a while, dishes all over the house, sink piled up, refrigerator growing unknown life forms. The bathroom had been so bad he still shuddered at the memory. The day the friend had asked him what was going to happen to Bowser was the same day Richard had really looked at the house. It had taken him a week to get it back to something Edith would have called ‘dirty’. Then two more months to do the details and learn new habits. He was still learning them and the bathroom had a tendency to get away from him.
“Are you coming back down?”
Bowser blinked at him from the middle of the kitchen floor. What that meant in cat language, Richard had no idea.
Downstairs, he pulled himself back up on the stool. Bowser appeared silently on the bench, sniffing at pieces of wood, tail erect. The cat carefully stepped over the wood so he could rub his back along the available face and nose.
The laugh exploded unexpectedly, between the tickle of Bowser’s tail and how carefully the cat had to position himself to accomplish it. Richard put down the piece of wood he held. Bowser wanted to go for a walk and there would be no work done until they had.
Bowser was good for him, he thought as he climbed back up the stairs. The cat taught him not to get too deeply involved in himself. Edith had that role before, of course. It had taken her years to get it through to him. What a workaholic he’d been! How had she ever stood it? Still, there were times when he got around other people, he wasn’t sure she’d been successful. He snapped at people, wondering why no one else seemed to enjoy silence the way he did. Maybe he needed a bit more than just Bowser. Maybe he needed to join a club or something.
He let Bowser out and followed the erect tail and fuzzy butt down the sidewalk. The neighborhood was safe, thank goodness. No dogs worth mentioning, other cats well aware of Bowser’s skill as a fighter.
The cat stopped to check a bush and he stopped too. The club thought returned. What could he do? Just joining something didn’t sound right. He should volunteer for something. Do some good. The television was always blathering on about that.
Bowser finished with the bush and moved on.
Visit a rest home regularly? The thought made him shudder.
Bowser trotted to him. It was the way all their walks ended. Bowser only went one direction; he expected a ride home. Stooping, Richard picked up the cat, vowing as he always did to cut back on the feed as he shifted the heavy cat to his shoulder. Bowser kneaded his paws and purred, watching the scenery go backward.
* * *
Christine’s whole body vibrated with anger and shock. How dare he! She really had been asleep when he came slamming into her room, telling her to get out of bed. No more malls, no more telephone (her hand still stung from where he had yanked it out of the wall and the cord had whipped past), no more anything until her grades came up and her attitude improved. She couldn’t even call Dar! Didn’t they know that limiting her freedom was the last thing they should do?
Christine got up and began to pace, too angry to sit still. There had to be a way to show them! They didn’t own her. She couldn’t run away. She knew better than to think she would survive for very long. Her door opened again. Kevin.
“Hey, Sis. I hear you’re causing Mom and Dad some grief.”
Kevin leaned against the doorjamb. “Nope. They’re disturbed enough to ask me for help, so here I am. That might tell you how much they care. What’s going on, anyway? You know you have to keep your grades up if you want them off your case.”
“Why should my freedom be based on their whims!”
Kevin snorted. “Because they are the adults and you are the child.”
“I am not a child!”
“You’re sure acting like one right now. Come on, Chris, you know all this is going to do is make everyone miserable. It’s not like you’re stupid. Keeping your grades up would take little effort on your part and make everyone happy. I kept mine up and I’m not as smart as you.”
“Oh yes, Kevin, you kept your grades up, did everything right, never got in trouble. But I am not you. That’s what they want, is another little Kevin to trot out to their friends.”
The look on his face told her she’d hurt him. Too bad. It’s what he got for taking Mom and Dad’s side.
“Maybe you’re not as smart as I thought.” Kevin turned and slammed the door behind him.
* * *
“You’re kidding,” he cradled the phone against his shoulder, holding the two pieces of wood together so the glue could dry. A single Bowser hair was sticking out of the glue. His trademark.
“No, I’m not,” Ivan Perry’s voice rumbled through the receiver; the friend who had pointed out the self-neglect. “We need something to show…a craft. You’re the only crafty person I know.”
“I just make things to pass the time!” Even as he spoke, Richard knew it wasn’t true. He enjoyed the challenge and the end beauty. He looked about at the piles of completed work. The sheer volume of his finished pieces had begun to weigh on him – draining his desire to start new projects. The thought of losing his drive to create frightened him.
“If enough students are interested after your show, we’ll set up a class.”
“On one condition.”
“They take what I bring.”
“You should sell…”
“That’s the deal.”
“Dang you’re tough.” Ivan chuckled. “So the deal back is, you will help instruct a class – purely volunteer?”
“We’ll cross that bridge later.”
* * *
Christine watched Dar’s animated gestures.
“Can you believe it? They are actually picking up after themselves now! The housework is split four ways. I have time to do my homework, to do it right. I have time to read again! Last night I actually got to soak in the tub! No hurry in and hurry out. Dad means it too. Sam and Mark tried to argue and Dad hit the ceiling; told them they were self-centered slobs and things were changing now. Chris, are you all right?”
The question caught her off guard. She’d thought Dar was so wrapped up in her own affairs she wouldn’t think to ask.
“No. My life sucks. I have to meet with a counselor today, like I’m some delinquent or something.”
“Why don’t you just get good grades? It would be easier.”
“You sound just like Kevin! Kiss their behinds to get them off mine.”
“Don’t yell at me!” Dar’s face closed down.
Christine had seen the look before toward snotty girls or obnoxious boys but never had the look been directed at her. “I’m sorry. It’s just that, why should I have to play their games? They know school is a bunch of BS.”
“It’s not the school.”
“Really? Then what is it?”
Dar snapped her a smile. “My Dad explained it to me. He talks to me a lot now that Mom is gone. They are worried about the symptoms. Good grades are a signal that all is right in your world. Bad grades are a sign that something might be messed up. And, as a small aside, they are prerequisite for college. That’s not your parent’s fault.”
“What if I don’t want to go to college?” Christine’s stomach turned at the thought of more schooling, stifling classrooms and monotone teachers. College didn’t have anything to offer.
Dar raised an eyebrow. “Well, there you go then. All you have to do is tell them that. I’m sure they’ll let you quit school. And then you’ll . . . ?”
Christine thought about it. What if she did quit school? She was too young to get a job. Besides, what was the point of trading one prison for another? Of course, with a job, she would have money, could be freer. Not! Get a place of her own and she’d be as broke as Kevin. “I hate you.”
Dar grinned. “Really?”
“So I’m supposed to just cave in? Trot along like the good little daughter?”
“You’ve heard the term about cutting off your nose? Do you want to be like Erin’s older sister?”
Erin’s older sister had dropped out of school two years ago. They’d begun keeping an informal tally of just how many jobs she’d had; grocery store (two months), Dairy Queen (three months), secretary for the dentist (one week). In between jobs, she sat around the house, watched television and gained weight. She hadn’t gotten pregnant . . . yet, but according to Erin, the boyfriends changed twice as quickly as the jobs.
“If you really think about it, Erin’s sister got just the opposite of what she wanted. Instead of getting out of the house, being free, she just reinforced the walls of her prison.”
Christine sighed. “I’m not stupid, Dar. I already figured that out.”
* * *
He carefully began loading a second box. There was more here than he’d realized. The first box was nearly full and he still had shelves lined with jewelry boxes, figurines of bears, seagulls and otters, three more spice racks, smaller boxes for holding decks of cards, coasters. The invitation to the junior high school was a blessing. He needed to get rid of this stuff. Funny, each one had a memory. The jewelry box with the agates inlaid on the top – he’d watched the television series Shogun while he’d worked on that. The pelican doing a bad landing had been when he’d discovered books on tape – night after night of careful carving to murder, government overthrows and love stories. He picked up a cat figurine from the shelf. This had been when Bowser had gotten so sick and he’d made it to pass the time until the cat could come home again. Would junior high school students appreciate this stuff? Hardly. How about the workmanship? Maybe. If nothing else, they might like getting something for nothing. He put the cat back on the shelf. He wouldn’t part with that one.
Would there be any kids that wanted to know what he knew? Create what he could create? He grinned. It didn’t matter. The now empty shelves spread out in a challenge to be filled again.
* * *
“What are you doing tomorrow night?” Dar led the way as they started the circuit to view the American Object D’ Art, as Mr. Perry called it. Boring but a way to get out of the other bore of social studies. “Do you want to go to the mall?” Her glance grazed the items; wooden boxes, animals, some were crude, some were okay.
“I can’t,” Christine replied, carefully pickimg up the figurine of the awkward pelican. “I still have a ‘D’ in math and Kevin is helping me. It’s so embarrassing but I missed a lot of the garbage at the beginning of the semester and now Ms. Carlton won’t review it for me. Look at this . . . ” The stress on the pelican’s face was perfect; a mixture of concentration and ‘oh no…’. Christine could feel her own toes reacting to the tension in the pelican’s webbed feet. It was set up for a landing it knew it was going to botch.
“It’s nice. Is that the one you’re going to take?” Dar’s eyes roamed over the tables they hadn’t gotten to yet. Her grades were up now. With any luck, she could keep them that way. Mark and Sam were also beginning to speak to her again. At first, they’d been sure she’d complained to their father. Dad had taken care of that by flopping their report cards in front of them. Meals had gotten creative, depending on who was supposed to cook, and Sam had learned what happens when you dump a red shirt in with whites and bleach. Floors and toilets were out of the question but she didn’t mind. Those she could handle with a book in her hand.
“Nice?” Christine stared at the pelican. It was more than nice. It summed up what being a teenager was! Maybe making it, probably not, but knowing the water would soften the blow . . . some. Always tense, wanting to do right, hating the need for it; never sure about any of it.
He saw them from his corner. The one bored. The other cradling the pelican, seeing more than just a piece of wood carved to look like something. He could tell by the way she kept gazing at it, changing the angle on it. He moved around the tables to them. “You can have that, if you like.”
Christine looked at him. He was old. How long had he been carving? She didn’t know enough about artists to know if he was famous. She looked at the pelican again. He was definitely an artist. She’d never had something tug at her like this before. “Where did you get the idea for it?”
“From a documentary I saw on television.”
The feathers weren’t perfect, and the body was a bit too round to be real but Christine knew what it took to recall something so – complete – simply from a television program. Was the pelican a reflection of his life? Was that why it was so . . . alive? She sighed inwardly. How shocked her parents, Kevin, even Dar would be if they could hear her thoughts. None of them knew this side of her. “I would really like to have it.”
“It’s yours then.”
“How can you just give it away?” The words came out without thought.
The old man shrugged. “Creating it was the goal. I have one or two pieces at home I won’t part with but this was more of a…” His light blue gaze darted away, face going pink. Silly fool. You’re sounding like some New York New Age Art Head.
“A release,” Christine finished for him, cradling the pelican.
“Yes.” It came out with a surprised lilt.
“Thank you. I will keep it.”
“Come on, Chris,” Dar was looking at her, a small smile playing about the corners of her mouth. “We’ll be late for fourth period.”
The pelican fit perfectly in her hand. “Thank you,” she followed Dar. “What are you grinning about?”
Dar took a half step sideways so their shoulders bumped briefly. “You. Sometimes even I fall for the shallow teenager act . . . ” Dar held out her hand. “Show it to me and this time, explain.”
Christine handed over the pelican, knowing her friend finally saw the value if not the reason for it.
He watched them leave. There had been fire in the girl’s eyes; a reflection of how he felt when he started a new project.